Livestock emit greenhouse gases, but could they also be climate change carbon savers?

Climate change is real and in many instances, agriculture’s livestock is often tagged as being a leading emitter, but what if cattle and livestock could be one of our solutions? It’s no secret, livestock production is an emitter of greenhouse gases (GHG), FAO estimates their emission to be 14.5% of all 2005 anthropogenic GHG emissions (that is GHG originating from human activity). This sounds like a big number, but when you look at the IPCC’s 2010 sector numbers, the energy supply sector accounted for 35% of the 49 GT CO2 equivalent emissions, while all of agriculture, forestry  and land use (AFOLU) account for only 24%. Within the AFOLU sector, livestock practices and rice paddy emissions accounted for only 5.0-5.8 GT of CO2 eq. emission (<12% of all global emissions)[1]. Knowing that livestock produce methane and other GHG, is it possible that they could help us in our efforts to reduce GHGs?

From desertification to reducing livestock, where we have been over the past 100 years

Before we can address what livestock can offer or take away from our climates, we first have to look at our history of land management. Millions of years ago, our world was a macro of ecosystems, which was not controlled by any one species. As humans evolved and discovered fire, changing their diets, they also began to domesticate their environments, giving up nomadic lifestyles, changing the world forever. Since then we have built communities, divided land, deduced rainforests and restricted how ‘our’ livestock move around, and where wildlife live. In other words, we have changed our ecosystems and surroundings to fit our needs and not adapted to fit the needs of our ecosystems.

One of the results of our insertion into these ecosystems has been desertification. Desertification is the degradation of land from fertile to those that are dry. The consequence of desertification is that first, the land loses the ability to hold moisture, which leads to soil erosion. This creates a damaging cycle and a factor in of climate change. When it rains, the soil doesn’t have enough organic material to hold the water, resulting in it flooding away or evaporating along with the soil’s carbon into the atmosphere, leaving nothing behind for future growth, and continuing this cycle. We have known this to be the result of the practices of deforestation, agricultural activities, and overgrazing. So why would we ever suggest that putting animals on the land would ‘corral’ climate change?

Utilizing herds for better land management

In the world of science, the issue of GHG often frames livestock in a negative light, that as we utilize livestock for our benefit, we are depleting the environment and is a source of desertification. This is something biologist Allan Savory believed also, and early in his career as a biologist working to settle national wildlife parks on the African continent. What he learned however was that what was taught about desertification and believed about livestock was wrong. As he and his team were settling a park to preserve the land and the wildlife, they saw the soil was degrading. The conclusion was that the parcel of land was too small to sustain the number of wild elephants, so over the years, upon the support of the Rhodesian (now Zimbabwe) government’s hired panel research experts and scientists, it was agreed that the elephant population needed to be reduced by 40,000 to sustain the land and the other wildlife. Unfortunately, after removing thousands of animals from the land it never improved, it only got worse. Savory’s error in understanding the balance of the ecosystem led him on a mission for solutions.

In his research, Savory discovered across the African continent and the USA, that where lands had seen a reduced number of wildlife and livestock herds, the land had not been improving. While his training had always taught him that livestock caused desertification, he knew this wasn’t the case before mankind began to domesticate animals and land. His theory is that we need to put more animals on the land and systematically move them over the land through ‘holistic management and planned grazing’. Here is his logic.

Not only are arid and sub-arid lands falling to desertification, but also so are grasslands, even though they should be collecting moisture from the months of precipitation they receive. For the grasslands to thrive, the grass itself must be biologically decayed each year to allow next year’s grasses to grow optimally. For grass to decay, it needs to be grazed, packed and fertilized by the animals of the land. If there are not enough animals to do so, the grass goes through oxidation. Oxidation is a slow process that leads to more gases being released from the soil and a shift to woody vegetation emerges rather than more grasses. To avoid this, burning is a solution. Nevertheless, as explained by Savory in his 2013 TEDtalk, fire only clears the land, but it does not add moisture into the soil and it releases more GHGs.

Holistic management and planned grazing

Before human intervention, herbivore animals roamed the earth in large herds, as there was safety in large numbers from other hunting mammals. Because of these big herds, they produced a lot of urine and manure, which meant they could only graze in one area for a short period, before having to move onto new and fresh grasslands. In this process, the animals began the biological decay process, grazing without overgrazing, fertilizing the land, and helping to pack the soil. From large herds that never stayed in one location too long, they offered the land organic matter for the soil and help the grasses for the coming years, which also helped the soil to retain moisture. Knowing this, Savory put this idea to the test through his holistic management and planned grazing system to mimic nature.

In his, TEDtalk Savory lists several examples of where and how his system has worked. In managed lands in Zimbabwe, they increase the cattle and goatherds by 400% and saw positive results. For a Patagonia region of land, they placed a flock of 25,000 sheep, and in the first year documented a 50% increase in the land. As of the early 2010s, Allan Savory and his team have helped implement this system of mimicking natures herds over 15 million ha over five continents. He claims that if this process was implemented to just half of our grasslands, it would be possible to get back to pre-industrial carbon levels, increase our land coverage and still feed people.

Canadian Cattle & Grasslands

For many of us, we are not aware of how desertification is endangering our land and ecosystems. Canada’s Great Plains grasslands are one of the world’s most endangered ecosystems. So the question I think we should be asking is why we think this system would not work. Moreover, we should be asking, could the gains be greater than the potential losses it creates? A group of dedicated conservationists, ranchers and Canadian filmmakers made a short documentary on the state of the Great Plains grasslands, and how cattle play a vital role in its survival in “Guardians of the Grasslands”. This film, while it does not focus on Savory’s method, expresses a similar need to adopt herd life that supports the ecosystem, rather than removing it from the system. Take the time to check out Allan Savory’s TEDTalk, and the Guardians of the Grasslands webpage for more information on how our use of livestock can better the environment in the right circumstances.

 

[1] The IPCC reports the order of GHG by economic sectors as Energy (Electricity & heat production indirect emissions and direct energy) 24.6%, AFOLU 24%, Industry 21%, Transport 14%, and Building 6.4%. (page 9 of ‘Summary for Policymakers)


Savannah Gleim

Savannah Gleim

Savannah joined Dr. Smyth's research team in the fall of 2014 and since has been an active member managing, editing, and writing for SAIFood. Prior to joining the SAIFood team, she completed her M.Sc. in Agricultural Economics and B.Sc. Agribusiness from the University of Saskatchewan.

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